Recently I visited one of the stores that sells a range of beauty and personal hygiene products in the western part of Windhoek. My fiancé, who is presently pregnant, wanted to purchase something for her flu and had me tag along. Once inside the shop (which I have never actually visited before), I noticed they stocked a large variety of products including pots, pans, and other white goods. In our case, we moved to the section dealing with vitamins and cough mixtures to see what was available. I requested one of the shop assistants to help us but it was painfully clear the person had no real training on the products that were offered. After some discussion, my fiancé and I felt it would be better to visit a nearby pharmacy. The same products were available at the pharmacy and we requested the pharmacy assistant to give us some guidance. After ascertaining that we were “expecting”, she quickly pointed out that it is not healthy to take some of the products and suggested we should rather look at effervescent (soluble in water) flu medications.
I took the time to speak to the pharmacist after this recommendation and asked about the level of training needed to be an assistant at their pharmacy. The owner informed me that they tried to take students in the field of biology or at least a three month course in first aid. In addition, only the pharmacist may actually suggest a product for a client that is pregnant or breast-feeding.
When I asked about the nearby hygiene products chain store, the pharmacist did admit that they were facing fierce competition and it was unfair as the staff who were working at the chain store were mostly school drop-outs with little or no education in basic medical care.
After this discussion, I took to the Internet to gauge the reality of people purchasing over the counter medicines. I came across the following definition by an international pharmaceutical company:
“Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines can be purchased at a pharmacy without a prescription. These include Schedule 0, 1 and 2 drugs, such as medication for headaches, coughs and colds, minor skin conditions, etc. It is always a good idea to consult the pharmacist (or assistant) when choosing an OTC product. They are trained to ask you some important questions in order to give you the individualised care you need.”
Now it begs the question, what training does the person need in a supermarket or chain store to suggest (prescribe) such a product when they have received no training in this matter at all? I went to the law books and looked up the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act 2003 as well as the Pharmacy Act of 2004. But in my rather layman understanding could not see any regulation prohibiting a retail store from selling schedule 0,1 or 2 drugs. Thus, there is no legal recourse it seems to make sure that such stores do not sell these over-the-counter drugs, at at the very least have a staff member that is at least semi-qualified to assist clients.
To cut a long story short, I believe that we need a consumer protection act and a consumer protection council that is empowered to look after the interests of the Namibian consumer. This will prevent stores from selling products to customers that will actually do more harm than good.
Milton Louw is the IT Project Coordinator at the Electoral Commission of Namibia. This column is written in his personal capacity as a consumer activist and the views expressed in this column are his own.